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Sally Rooney has called Israel an apartheid state and blamed its “system of racial domination” for her refusal to sell her latest novel’s translation rights to an Israeli-based publishing house.
The Irish author has declined an offer from Modan, an Israeli publisher, to translate her latest work, Beautiful World, Where Are You, into Hebrew, citing the treatment of the Palestinians.
The novel, published last month, has topped book charts in Britain and Ireland. It centres on a prizewinning writer, Alice, and her friend, Eileen.
Yesterday Rooney, 30, said in a statement: “Firstly, I was very proud to have my previous two novels translated into Hebrew by Katyah Benovits. I would like to thank everyone involved in the publication of those books for supporting my work. Likewise, it would be an honour for me to have my latest novel translated into Hebrew and available to Hebrew-language readers. But for the moment, I have chosen not to sell these translation rights to an Israeli-based publishing house.”
Rooney’s first two novels, Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), were published in Hebrew by Modan. The latter was adapted into a BBC series last year
Explaining her decision, Rooney cited the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls for boycotts of Israeli products and investments. “This year, the international campaign group Human Rights Watch published a report entitled A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities And The Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution,” she said.
“That report, coming on the heels of a similarly damning report by Israel’s most prominent human rights organization B’Tselem, confirmed what Palestinian human rights groups have long been saying: Israel’s system of racial domination and segregation against Palestinians meets the definition of apartheid under international law.”
She described the BDS movement as a grassroots campaign modelled on the boycott “that helped to end apartheid in South Africa”.
She added: “Of course, many states other than Israel are guilty of grievous human rights abuses. This was also true of South Africa during the campaign against apartheid there. I understand that not everyone will agree with my decision, but I simply do not feel it would be right for me under the present circumstances to accept a new contract with an Israeli company that does not publicly distance itself from apartheid and support the UN-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people.
“The Hebrew-language translation rights to my new novel are still available and if I can find a way to sell these rights that is compliant with the BDS movement’s institutional boycott guidelines, I will be very pleased and proud to do so.”
Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, refused to sell the Hebrew translation rights to the novel in 2012. Walker, 77, attributed this to her view that Israel was an “apartheid state”.
Dr Gitit Levy-Paz, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, wrote in The Forward, a Jewish-American media site: “The very essence of literature, its power to bring a sense of coherence and order to the world, is negated by Rooney’s choice to exclude a group of readers because of their national identity.”
BDS was formed in 2005 and calls for an international boycott of Israel, including its cultural, economic and academic institutions (Nina Lloyd writes).
Its aim is to pressure Israel to comply with what it describes as its obligations under international law, including withdrawal from the occupied territories and “promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes”.
Many proponents of BDS regard the movement as primarily aimed at ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, but many Israelis have claimed that BDS is antisemitic and that its underlying motive is to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state.
The Israeli government has rejected the parallels that BDS draws between itself and the South African anti-apartheid movement as a smear tactic. Last year the US under Donald Trump’s administration described BDS as antisemitic.
BDS has rejected the accusations and said that it is “opposed to all forms of racism”.
In 2019 Germany’s parliament said the actions of BDS, such as the placing of “don’t buy” stickers on products from Israel, were reminiscent of the Nazi campaign against Jewish people under Adolf Hitler.
In 2017 Israel passed a law denying entry to people who had links to BDS.
Two years later it expelled Omar Shakir, a senior employee of the campaign group Human Rights Watch, accusing him of supporting the boycott.